It has been a couple of years since fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons has come out. I have run the game multiple times, largely inclusive of the Starter Set and home grown campaigns. Running a store I have also been mute witness to numerous games run by other GM’s in my game store and thought I would lay down my thoughts of the “greatest” RPG of all time.
I don’t like it
Summed up, this heading describes my feelings for the game as it stands. There are too many things that are intrusions on my ability to run a simple fantasy game. Things that have been set up so that players do not suffer hardship of characters. How can I possibly create an environment for the players to experience thrill and adventure when the game intrudes to make sure that there is little risk of loss and no chance of longer term hardship?
I found the call that fifth edition was so close to the original Dungeons and Dragons a heartening call in the beginning. That was until I realised that the call was actually being made, largely, by people that had never really played the very early editions of Dungeons and Dragons. I cut my teeth on the basic Dungeons and Dragons. The series that started with the Basic box, then Masters, Companion and Expert (plus Immortals but that was awful).
This system acted in concert to the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons sets of the time. Both were their own game and both had their strengths. Each of these games had a straight forward set of rules about combat, healing, spells and the like. The rules did not intrude anywhere, they just were the rules and that was that. A character could go days after a massive contest against an evil creature and not be fully healed. They may in fact need to go on an adventure to get fully back to health.
Then second edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons came along. It smoothed out some of the rough edges of first but also got rid of some of its nice portions like starting at 0 level. The systems were not that far apart though and second edition was widely accepted by most players as the state of the game. The basic version of the game disappeared and the company that owned Dungeons and Dragons (TSR – Tactical Studies Rules) started a major expansion on the game. Dungeons and Dragons under second edition saw major rules expansions throughout its life. So much so that it became a bloated monster that sought to feed on the wallet of every DM across the world.
Second edition, at its heart, was arguably the best version of the game that has ever been. If you find players that are not playing the latest edition it is likely that they are playing second edition (as long as you take Pathfinder out of the race as it is NOT Dungeons and Dragons).
So What Happened Then?
TSR could not survive. Dungeons and Dragons Second Edition had become a massive monster that had too much bloat. People had gone on to different settings and TSR also flooded the market with option books. The heart of the game, mostly home grown material, was lost and TSR held their licence as sacrosanct. They employed too many to produce material for too much that was bought by too few. The game that everyone started on was on the brink of collapse and with newer skill based systems out in the market it was showing that strain.
Wizards of the Coast rode in and saved the day. TSR collapsed and WotC bought the rights to the game with the desire to modernise it and bring it in line with other systems that were going strong. To combat the bloat factor they offered an open license. They would deal with the core rules and some of the more popular franchises of TSR whilst others could finally release their own material for the game. It was a great idea but the system had problems. In reality the systems of all their editions have had problems. They also treat it like a money cow. Whilst TSR had Dungeons and Dragons it went though two iterations in around 23 years. Wizards of the Coast have had it they have released 4 iterations of the game in 16 years (3E, 3.5E, 4 and 5).
This means that just when you get everything you want, they re-release the game and you have to buy it all again. It is a weak business model and one that has proven to dramatically reduce customer base (ask Games Workshop about this) because of the backlash. Of the editions that WotC released most people liked 3.5E. It had massive support from players and third party developers. So much so that when WotC announced 4E (the worst edition of the game) one of the companies that had been working with WotC with such things as Dungeon and Dragon magazines, Paizo, went on to create Pathfinder March 18 2008. Pathfinder is still going strong and enjoys just as many players as the current edition of D&D.
What specifically do I not like about D&D?
There are a number of things that really get my goat about the latest edition but the worst of it is the lack of consequences in this game. A character can fight a dragon that will bring them to the brink of death, then take a rest and it is as if nothing happened at all. They jog off onto another adventure. Poisoning simply means it makes you feel a bit off and have to roll twice to hit someone instead of once, taking the worst roll.
I just have no idea what this achieves. Plus the spell system dishing out massive power spells to magicians and clerics new to the adventuring way of life. They no longer need to grow into power – they just have it and always will. I will admit that I like my games bleak and dark. Gritty games that adventurers struggle through to find great reward. Actions have consequences and this edition encourages a lack of continuity in such a game.
Plus, the rest mechanic breaks a game. In every game I have had to have discussions with players because they throw everything they have at the first encounter and then just expect to be able to sleep 8 hours and continue to the next room. It is no longer a system that says you can do this x amount of times a day, it says you can do x, then have a long rest and do it again – this system encourages unrealistic, broken mechanics. But then again, it is made by a company who make the most popular card game on the market that is full of broken rules and mechanics.
Is there anything I like about the game?
Yes, of course there is. First and foremost is the Dungeon Master Guide. This is a brilliant book about running a game. It has excellent general advice about making games and good general tools for a fantasy game to be generated. If you overlook the terrible systems that are designed to put balance (BALANCE! Don’t talk to me about balance!) and build specific encounters then you have a book that everyone should have on their shelves.
The art work is sensational also. But in today’s gaming environment you really need awesome art or retro art. It is just a measure of the times really!
So, this is my last post on what I think about 5E. You will find various posts and Video posts of my thoughts about the place. It has now been a couple of years where I have run a lot of this game. I now run it only because people that come into the store that have only heard of this game. They generally move into some of my other systems over time but some stay with 5E.
In my opinion I tip my hat for D&D and what it did for gaming. The truth of the matter is the best version of this game is no longer available commercially. Nothing can be done to save the current version. People always tell me to “just change x”, or “have you tried y with house rules?” My response is why use a system that you need to make your own rules up to play? Might as well make your own game!